According to the city’s Environmental Protection Department, Hong Kong sees more than 340 tons of textile waste dumped into the city’s overflowing landfills each day.
However, a recent report noted that a new textile spinning mill, the first to open in this former textile manufacturing powerhouse in half a century, aims to reuse that waste, harnessing pioneering recycling technology to try to make the fashion industry more sustainable.
According to the head of the innovation efforts at the non-profit funded by the family, founders and main owners of one of the largest fast fashion clothing brands in the world, these technologies may be the gateway to a fashion industry decoupled from the use of virgin natural resources.
The clothing retailer has already placed the first order at the mill, as part of its bid to become “fully circular and renewable,” according to the group’s environmental sustainability manager.
The upcycling factory, located in the Tai Po Industrial Estate, will use new technology to separate fabric blends in waste garments and produce yarn when it opens in a month.
It comes as clothing companies around the world doubled the number of garments they made from 2000 to 2014, according to a 2016 report by a management consultancy.
Over the same period, the number of garments bought each year, per person, jumped 60 per cent, the report said.
That has led to a stream of clothing — purchased and thrown away, left unsold, or tossed as textile plant waste — going into landfills.
The government of Hong Kong wants to encourage its 7.3 million people to move away from a “take-make-dispose” model toward a more “circular economy” where waste is reused, according to the city’s secretary for the environment.
It is also seeking to make the city a leader in sustainable fashion.
To try to achieve the aim, it has since 2006 funded the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA), which collaborates with industry partners and groups like the clothing brand’s foundation.
Hong Kong’s government also funded a two-day “Fashion Summit” in early September, billed as the largest sustainable-fashion event in Asia.
With many people working in textile sourcing and start-ups, the city is a good place to introduce new technology to a global audience of fashion executives, according to the director for business development at the HKRITA.
Fashion companies are making better decisions now; and when the technology is ready, it can be proliferated across Asia and the world.
The new mill in Tai Po uses two pioneering technologies, developed and patented by HKRITA, to reuse fabric made of mixed fibres.
While it’s possible to recycle garments made from one material until now, no commercially viable method has existed for recycling blends on a big scale.
The mill will carry out mechanical recycling, where soiled or damaged fabrics — such as old uniforms or hotel curtains — are sanitized, with buttons and zippers removed, then sorted and stored.
Once an order comes in for a certain colour, the material is UV-sterilized before being cut into pieces and spun into yarn.
No water or dye is needed, and only small amounts of virgin material are used.
But the mill will also test a system to separate cotton and polyester blends using only heat, water and small quantities of biodegradable chemicals.
The cotton is turned into cellulose powder while the polyester fibre is used for spinning and making new fabric.
If the factory can show that the technologies work, in practice, to make high-quality yarn, it could drive demand globally for recycled yarn and wider use of the technology.
As the project is scaled up, the hope is to make the technology freely available to the industry. Thus, reducing dependence on limited natural resources to clothe a growing global population.
A sustainable fashion survey, released at the Fashion Summit this month, showed that an increasing number of buyers are becoming more conscious about the industry’s impact on the planet.
More than three-quarters of 5,000 consumers surveyed in Hong Kong, Shanghai, London, New York and Tokyo said they were concerned about the environment, pollution and waste.
However, only 13 per cent of consumers in the survey said they were willing to pay a higher price for sustainable fashion.
Sixty per cent said they would prefer sustainable fashion if the price was the same as that for normal fashion and that a labelling or scoring system would help.
To help educate consumers and entice them to recycle clothes, the groups have teamed up with a repurposed former textile mill complex called The Mills in Hong Kong and opened a recycling station and shop in the western New Territories’ neighbourhood of Tsuen Wan.
Here, Hongkongers can bring in old, unwanted clothes and ask them to be remade into another garment, in as little time as four hours.
The groups hope that when consumers see with their own eyes what valuable resource garments at end of life can be, they can also believe in recycling.